"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

12 August 2005

Liberal Arts and the Modern Student

I am currently reading Michael Oakeshott’s The Voice of Liberal Learning, a fascinating anthology of essays on education. It is a challenge; while I agree with a great deal that Oakeshott says, he seems – so far as I can tell at this point – to be starting from a different set of assumptions about the world and man’s place in it than I do. And so I am needing to be constantly aware of these assumptions and try to sort through how they affect his ideas and how that should affect my reading. It’s good; I need that sort of challenge to keep my own reading skills sharp and to remember what my students need to learn about responding to text themselves.

We talk a great deal about the “liberal arts”; most of our colleges and universities claim to offer a “liberal arts” education. I have long known that is not the case, nor is it even possible in the structure of the American institution of so-called higher education. If a student graduates with a liberal education, it will be because he has figured it out on his own, perhaps with a bit of encouragement from the few teachers who see the vast gap between the claim and the reality.

Oakeshott defines liberal learning with various emphases as he progresses through his first essay, “A Place of Learning.” This is my favorite articulation of his definition and will suffice to clarify what I mean by the term “liberal arts” (which, please note, has nothing to do with the political designations of liberal and conservative): Liberal learning is learning to respond to the invitations of the great intellectual adventures in which human beings have come to display their various understandings of the world and of themselves. Or as Arthur Holmes has also put it (in his book The Idea of a Christian College): the liberal arts are those which are appropriate to man as man, rather than to man in his specific function as a worker or as a professional or even as a scholar.

The point of Oakeshott’s essay is to clarify what this venture should mean and the importance of a special place – school – where it can be accomplished (or perhaps “begun” is a better word; it is a lifelong task). Along the way he discusses various problems in the modern academy which come about because of its capitulation to the demands of modern culture. But towards the end, he describes what modern culture has done to the students who come to us, and challenges the university to find a way to reach them instead of accommodate them. I offer a lengthy quote from this section as a challenge to myself as this new semester begins – to remember that this accurately describes many of my students, and to remember that it is worth the effort to hold out to them continually the opportunity to see the world in different terms, no matter how strenuously they may resist my efforts. (I’ve added a couple of paragraph breaks to the following quote to make it easier to follow in this format.)

The world in which many children now grow up is crowded, not necessarily with occupants and not at all with memorable experiences, but with happenings; it is a ceaseless flow of seductive trivialities which invoke neither reflection nor choice but instant participation. A child quickly becomes aware that he cannot too soon plunge into this flow or immerse himself in it too quickly; to pause is to be swept with the chilling fear of never having lived at all. There is little chance that his perceptions, his emotions, his admirations and his ready indignations might become learned responses or be even innocent fancies of his own; they come to him prefabricated, generalized and uniform. He lurches from one modish conformity to the next, or from one fashionable guru to his successor, seeking to lose himself in a solidarity composed of exact replicas of himself.

From an early age children now believe themselves to be well-informed about the world, but they know it only at second hand in the pictures and voices that surround them. It holds no puzzles or mysteries for them; it invites neither careful attention nor understanding. As like as not they know the moon as something to be shot at or occupied before ever they have had the chance to marvel at it. This world has but one language, soon learned: the language of appetite. The idiom may be that of the exploitation of resources of the earth, or it may be that of seeking something for nothing; but this is a distinction without a difference. It is a language composed of meaningless clichés. It allows only the expression of “points of view” and the ceaseless repetition of slogans which are embraced as prophetic utterances.

Their ears are filled with the babel of invitations to instant and unspecified reactions and their utterance reproduces only what they have heard said. Such discourse as there is resembles the barking of a dog at the echo of its own yelp. School in these circumstances is notably unimportant. To a large extent it has surrendered its character as a place apart where utterances of another sort may be heard and languages other than the language of appetite may be learned. Its affords no seclusion, it offers no release. Its furnishings are the toys with which those who come are already familiar. Its virtues and vices are those of the surrounding world.

These, then, are circumstances hostile to a disposition to recognize the invitation of liberal learning: that is, the invitation to disentangle oneself, for a time, from the urgencies of the here and now and to listen to the conversation in which human beings forever seek to understand themselves. How shall a university respond to the current aversion from seclusion, to the now common belief that there are other and better ways of becoming human than by learning to do so, and to the impulsive longing to be given a doctrine or to be socialized according to a formula rather than to be initiated into a conversation? Not, I think, by seeking excuses for what sometimes seem unavoidable surrenders, nor in any grand gesture of defiance, but in a quiet refusal to compromise which comes only in self-understanding. We must remember who we are: inhabitants of a place of liberal learning.

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